1001 Uses For Dental Floss #43- Archeology, Dental Evidence, and Child Sacrifice

Today’s post is a mixture of history, archeology, religion, conjecture and controversy. Not much to do with floss, but hang in for the surprises.

First, a little history. Carthage was once a city in what is now Tunisia. You may remember Carthage, a city and an empire which clashed with Rome and lost. Hannibal, famous for crossing the Alps into Italy with his elephants, engaged the Romans in war and won most of the battles, except for the last one, which is of course the most important one. That’s why the languages many of us speak are descended from variants of Latin instead of variants of Aramaic, which is what the Carthaginians spoke.

Aramaic happens to be the language spoken in the eastern Mediterranean lands before the Romans and Greeks came along, and was the language used by Jesus. It was spoken by the Phoenicians, who were the close cousins, if not the same crew, as the Carthaginians. They were also known as the Canaanites, who worshipped the God Baal.

So it happens, if you remember any of the Old Testament part of the Bible from your youth, that these Baalists carried out all sorts of atrocities in their religious rites, including child sacrifice, and this practice, and therefore Phoenician/ Canaanite culture (and thus also Carthaginian culture) were abhorred by the Israelites, and later by the Greeks and Romans.

Human sacrifice was vigorously condemned in the Old Testament by the prophet Elijah, who promoted the destruction of the Baalists by the Israelites for this reason, among others.

So, did these peoples really sacrifice children in their temples? Now here the evidence starts to stir up controversy. This all hangs on evidence related to something called the “neonatal line” in baby teeth. What is termed the “neonatal line” is a noticeable change in layers of enamel evenly laid down before birth, something like the rings in a tree. This mechanism is briefly disrupted during a week or more following birth because birth process is so traumatic to the newborn, and this line can be seen when these teeth are viewed by a number of different analytical methods.

Still with me?

In a children’s cemetery recently examined in the ruins of Carthage, young children’s remains included both ones who died shortly after birth, but also many who were the results of miscarriages, because their teeth bore no signs of the neonatal line and so died before birth. It is known that the survival of newborns past their first year or two was only about 50% at best.

What this implies is that these fetuses were buried with reverence in the cemetery and suggests, from the inscriptions on grave markers there, that the other children died a natural death and were not given by their parents to be sacrificed, but their lives rather were highly valued.

Read this as you will, but this could imply that the whole notion of child sacrifice in Canaanite culture could be wrong and written in the Old Testament to justify the destruction of these people by the abhorrence of God for this practice. The evidence could be flimsy or it could be robust, depending on where your sympathies lie, but experts in the field (historians and archeologists) are strongly divided on whether this is real evidence and if it means anything when compared to the historical record that was written by the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans, who were of course the enemies of this people. Historical revisionism by the victor, after all, has been around for a long, long time. But at this point, the verdict seems to hinge on evidence from teeth.

To which I say: I don’t know, but remember to floss.

For both takes on this story, see: